This Place

My first day on Whidbey Island is a distinct memory.  It was June, 1995, and I had just spent the few years since college graduation in training mode for the Navy.  Learning to fly in Pensacola and Corpus Christi, learning to operate the P-3C in Jacksonville, and learning to what to do if I were ever to be captured in combat in San Diego.  San Diego was the training site, not the theoretical location of combat, if that wasn’t clear.  There were also several boondoggles, mostly of my own making, thrown into that mix, made possible by the temporary glut of newly minted Naval Aviators at the time – I spent a few months hanging out in southern Spain with a C-130 squadron, and another few in Cambridge, England as part of a small permanent detachment flying King Airs.  But all of it was preparation for this, my check-in at my first fleet squadron, VP-40 at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island.  Two of my flight school friends who had checked into a sister squadron a few weeks earlier met me upon my arrival to show me around.  We had decided to share a rental house in nearby Anacortes, and they had set everything up and were eager to see what I thought of the house.  I drove onto the base via the back gate, and basically what I saw was this.

Had they plopped a Naval Air Station into the middle of a National Park by accident?  From the end of the runway and along the entire west side of the base you look out the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the mid-line of which serves as the border between the US and Canada.  To the south, the Olympic peninsula with its year-round snow-capped mountains rises jaggedly out of the water, and to the north the hundreds of San Juan Islands dot the calm ocean.  And everything’s green.  Except the water, of course, which is a deep blue that would make you want to jump into it if its temperature ever exceeded 50 degrees or so.  I was overwhelmed; I could not imagine that this was to be my workplace and home for the next three years. 

Check out the geographical setup above. Whidbey is the long island in the middle shaped like an old school telephone receiver, and the Naval Air Station is the somewhat lighter blotch just above the town of Oak Harbor. The nearest sizeable city as the crow flies is Victoria, BC, a few miles to the west.

Impossibly, the scenery got even prettier as we made the short drive up to Anacortes, first crossing the iconic Deception Pass bridge, under which several times per day the water roils itself into standing waves and whirlpools due to the rapid tidal currents. 

We pulled up to the house they had rented and I think my first words were “you can’t be serious.”  The entire front consisted of an A-shaped wall of windows that looked out upon the water, islands, and mountains.  This was to be my view, every day. 

Now, to be fair, I need to concede that I was extremely fortunate to be able to have formed my first impressions at the end of June.  Whidbey Island is a very different place from October to May.  This is not to say it is ever less than stunning, but the grey days, the misty rain, and the temperatures hovering mostly between 40 and 50 well into June at times can be oppressive.  But I didn’t know any of that then.  And it was never enough to keep this Southern California born and raised kid from loving the area for the three years I was there, enough so that Tacco and I moved back for another ten. 

It would have easily and happily been the place we raised our kids and likely retired had the opportunity for Tacco to teach back in Annapolis not arisen.  And at the beginning of our current traveling adventure, it held the front-runner spot by far in the where-do-we-settle competition. 

But the past is prologue, and here we were driving our flight of five in our moving home back onto the base to spend a week soaking up more of the Pacific Northwest summer vibe.  Tacco and I were curious how it would strike us, not to mention the kids, only one of whom had any real meaningful memories of living here. 

And of course this is what we saw. 

Cliffside Park, Whidbey’s RV campground, has got to be one of the nicest, if not the nicest in the military system.  It was given a major overhaul a few years back, and on top of the stunning natural waterfront setting, the trail system, the cheap (often free, depending who’s on duty) rental bikes, and the easy access to civilization, the gentleman who took the permanent camp host job happens to be a master gardener.  So you get this.

The playing comes naturally, and play we did. 

First a bit of work for me though, as I flew up to Anchorage to meet a plane which I then piloted back down to Portland.  It was the only leg I was required to fly on this particular trip, and was the result of another boondoggle for me, the type that rarely falls into an airline pilot’s lap but is hugely welcome when it does.  Here’s what happened… Essentially a flight had gotten “stuck” in Anchorage, presumably because the pilot who had been scheduled to fly it out the following day got sick.  Not having any reserve pilots available on the West Coast able to get to Alaska in time, they began calling “local” pilots to see if any were able to operate the flight, and since I had recently changed my “home city” of record to Portland (seemed as good as anywhere to list, given our lifestyle), I got the call from our scheduling folks just before our family’s departure from Seattle.  If this doesn’t yet seem like a boondoggle, it’s because I haven’t yet described how such a trip pays out.  Essentially what I would need to do is get myself up to Anchorage (easy to do from Seattle) and fly to Portland.  That’s it.  BUT… as I am technically still based in Boston for my airline, they’re required to pay me for the trip from Boston to Anchorage, as well as the return leg from Portland to Boston.  AND… it’s paid at a higher rate due to its being an emergency assignment – almost double.  And as if that weren’t enough, they “bought” my next trip, which I would now not be legal to fly due to my flying this one – i.e. they paid me for it without my flying it.  Basically that’s about as good as it gets airline trip-wise.  And lest you think that description of the ins and outs of how airline flying can sometimes break insanely favorable was excessive, there was a point to it, which will come into play in a future post.

At any rate, I returned to the family happily settled into Whidbey’s rhythms.  The tidal swing there is high, about 15 feet from the highest high to the lowest low, and that makes for fruitful exploring at low tide.  As Cliffside’s beach is quite shallow, that much tidal swing makes for several hundred yards of extra beach when the tide is out, much of which is teeming with semi-trapped sea life that isn’t used to being sought out by curious kiddos.

The crabs were not as easy to see as we imagined they would be, given the fact that they tend to dig mostly into the sand when the water recedes.  But once we knew what to look for (and not to step on, oops…) we were able to spot several Red Rock crab and a few baby Dungeness, whose parents were presumably out foraging in deeper water.

The clams were somewhat trickier to capture, as they tended to be visible only via a jet of water they would shoot from their foot, only the top of which was exposed.  What’s more, they’re skilled diggers, and can immediately sense probing hands.  Keeper was pretty proud of himself for managing to unearth this one (which he shortly thereafter returned to the wet sand). 

And then there was this guy.  A baby flounder maybe?  Not entirely up on my flatfish, but we spotted him hiding from us in at the bottom of a large, shallow pool that had been open water a half hour before.  Keeper chased him a bit, and to both of our surprises managed to grab him once before he skittled away.  Not enough for dinner, or even a snack, but good to know my son can catch fish with his bare hands if it ever comes to that.

In keeping with our National Park site theme, we visited nearby Fort Casey, which I had flown over at low altitude hundreds of times, but never spent the time to visit during my time as a local.  Puget Sound’s relatively narrow and deep waterways make for easily defendable chokepoints, overlooking which sit several gun embankments.  I had ridden by a few of them while mountain biking or unsuccessfully fishing for salmon, but never took the time to learn much about them. The girls did so while earning their Junior Ranger badges, and filled me in.

The rest of the time we spent beachcombing, wandering, and playing in the campground for the most part.  And it was soul-soothing. 

Whidbey is such a relaxing place; it’s difficult to convey how calming looking out at this water is on a perfect 75-degree day, so I’ll just post the pictures.

After this we drive the few miles north to Anacortes, where we’ll camp at a few of our favorite places and attempt to pay attention to what our guts tell us about its prospects as our future home.  It has dropped in the rankings throughout our travels during our time on the road, but that’s possibly just a factor of our prolonged absence rather than anything rational or even emotional.  I’m curious to see where this goes.  In a week we return to Annapolis to close on the house (again), which I’m certain will spool us back up.  But right now, savoring the serenity is the order of the day. 

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